How can you make the most of your time on maternity leave?
If you’re about to go on maternity leave, you may be busy making lots of plans to fill the time. All new mums and babies are different, but maternity leave is an important stage of your parenting journey – one where you can take time to rest, recover, and adjust to your new role in the world.
If you’re wondering how you can make the most of your maternity leave, don’t worry too much. You don’t need to set any world records or achieve all your lifelong ambitions; you will have plenty to do just preparing for your baby’s arrival and then getting used to being a mum.
How much maternity leave am I entitled to take?
The first step to making the most of your maternity leave is to find out exactly what you are entitled to. How much money will you receive and how much time off can you take? While there are statutory minimums that most employees will be eligible for, some employers offer more generous maternity leave benefits, so make sure you know what your company’s policy is.
The majority of employed women are entitled to statutory maternity leave of up to a year (52 weeks). The first 26 weeks are referred to as "ordinary maternity leave", while the second 26 weeks are called "additional maternity leave".
You can choose to take the full year off work, but you will not receive statutory maternity pay (SMP) for the full 52-week period. SMP is only paid to those who are eligible for the first 39 weeks.
During the first six weeks of maternity leave, SMP is paid at a higher rate – the equivalent of 90 per cent of your average weekly earnings. For the following 33 weeks, the rate will then switch to £156.66 a week. If 90 per cent of your pay is less than this weekly amount, it will remain at that rate for the rest of your maternity leave.
Everyone who is employed must take a minimum of two weeks off after giving birth to rest and recover, and if you work in a factory, you must stay off work for at least four weeks.
Self-employed people can still take maternity leave and can claim maternity allowance instead of SMP. Maternity allowance is paid at the same level as SMP for the full 39 weeks, but there is no higher rate for the first six weeks.
Maternity allowance is also paid to some employees who are not eligible for SMP, so do check whether you can claim this if you have been told you don’t qualify.
While you are away from work on maternity leave, you will carry on accruing annual leave and your employment rights will be protected.
When can I go on maternity leave?
Exactly when you start your maternity leave will usually come down to personal choice, but speak to your employer so you can pick a date that works well for both of you. You cannot start your maternity leave until 11 weeks before your baby’s estimated due date. If you give birth before that point, your maternity leave will start automatically.
Once you have made a decision about when you want to start your maternity leave, you must give your employer 28 days’ notice. You may not know when you will want to come back to work at this point, but you can amend this date at a later point, although you will need to give eight weeks’ notice of your return date.
If you need to take time off for a pregnancy-related illness during the four weeks leading up to the week before your due date, your maternity leave will begin automatically from that point.
How should I spend my maternity leave?
Take time to slow down and rest before your baby arrives. Your maternity leave will differ depending on when you decided to stop working and whether your baby arrives early, on time, or late.
The final stages of pregnancy are usually very tiring, so sleep as much as you can in preparation for what lies ahead. Spend some quality time with those you love and do things you really enjoy before your baby arrives too, as juggling the demands of a newborn can make it challenging to take time for yourself.
When your baby arrives, focus on recovering from the birth and bonding with your newborn. Don’t try to take on too much in those first few weeks, as you will have your hands full learning to care for your baby.
How do I stop myself from feeling lonely while I am on maternity leave?
Being at home with a baby can seem isolating, especially if you are used to going out to work or you usually have a busy social life. Accept help from those around you when it is offered, even if it is just inviting a loved one round to hold the baby and give you some adult company.
The majority of fathers will be entitled to up to two weeks of paid paternity leave. This can be an important time for your partner to bond with your baby and give you some much-needed support during these early weeks.
You might want to consider shared parental leave, which allows you to split your time off with your partner. By using shared parental leave, couples can share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay (at the same rate as statutory maternity leave).
Look for opportunities to socialise with people in a similar situation to you. You might make friends at antenatal classes, breastfeeding support groups, or baby groups and classes. There are different groups to cater for a wide variety of different interests, and your health visitor should be able to give you some information about what is available in your area. Libraries can also be an incredible source of information if you can’t find what you are looking for online, and many of them also run their own sessions for parents and small children.
Find out what your choices are and see if any appeal to you. Some new mums will want to be busy and fill their weeks with different activities, while others may find they don’t enjoy groups or classes and prefer to see people on a more informal basis. Neither option is better or worse than the other, so do whatever you feel comfortable with and don’t put any pressure on yourself.
However you meet other parents, you will likely find comfort in being able to talk to people who are in a similar situation, so you can share your experiences and discuss anything that might be worrying you.
Don’t underestimate the power of simply leaving the house, though. Even just a short trip to the local shop or a walk around a nearby park will help you feel less isolated. Being active and getting some fresh air will be good for both you and your baby, and an outing in a pram or baby carrier will often help your little one settle to sleep.
One vital thing you should do during your maternity leave is chat with your baby. That may sound strange as they won’t reply, but talking is essential in helping them build important language skills.
Tell your little one what you are doing; read aloud from books and recite nursery rhymes if you’re not sure what to say. As they get older, they will start to play a more active role in your conversations, and you will have given them a solid foundation that will help them learn to talk.
Stay in touch with your employer
Keep the lines of communication open with your employer while you are off work so you don’t feel out of touch when you return. This doesn’t mean taking on work or replying to every email in your inbox, but checking in from time to time will mean you still feel like a member of the team.
You can also work up to 10 days during your maternity leave without your statutory maternity pay being affected. These days are known as "Keeping in Touch" days or KIT days, and need to be agreed with your employer.
They are totally optional but can be a good way of easing yourself back into work before you fully return. They are also paid at a rate agreed with your employer, so can be a welcome boost to your income.